Showing vs. telling: both are key to establishing mood and tone, and in creating an immersive storytelling experience.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ― Anton Chekhov
A dark, stormy night. A clock’s incessant ticking. Sunshine, blooming flowers. Even strategically placing colors and shadows can convey a certain mood or tone without a writer having to spell it all out on the page.
If you’ve studied writing at all, then you’ve been told (probably more than once) that showing is better than telling. In most cases, this is absolutely true. But we also know that there are always exceptions to the rule; sometimes, you simply have to tell your readers about the exposition and character backstories they need in order to understand the present situation in your narrative. When it comes to the less concrete elements, however―a character’s emotional response to something, the vibe in a room, even something as broad as the overall tone of your story―you need a more refined strategy to get your point across without compromising the readability and flow of your writing.
So how do you make the call as to whether you should be showing or telling your readers what’s going on, and how can you tailor your approach to communicate a certain mood or tone? I’ve brought together a few classic devices and strategies to help you start making your words read more authentically on the page. These aren’t foolproof formulas, though. No two stories are exactly alike (we hope), so tweak whatever you need to in order to set the mood and tone of your story.
Both the stormy night and the sunlit meadow have become storytelling standbys for good reason; the weather and other elements of nature are perfect for setting the tone without stating the obvious. For one, the natural world is something just about everyone can easily picture in their mind while reading about it in a book. For another, nature and weather patterns―even specific animals―cover the spectrum of moods and tones, so even a minor adjustment in your word choice can turn a setting on its head.
Take that iconic storm, for example. For most people, storms are scary, unpredictable, even dangerous. And the ways that the storm manifests are what will help clue your reader in on what exactly you want them to feel as they read. Roiling ocean waves and gusting winds convey chaos. Thunder and lightning are designed to make your audience jumpy and skittish. And if you introduce the idea of pitter-pattering rain on the roof, water dribbling through the gutters, and flickering lights, you also hint at a quieter inconvenience to accent the larger forces at play, a sinister sort of constant to continue well after the storm has died down.
Now, let’s look at the sunny day. You might still mention waves hitting the shore, but these are just the marks of a typical day at the beach, of nature washing away whatever was left behind on the sand. Breezes are refreshing, not destructive like howling winds, and birds calling to one another are carrying on a conversation and signifying a sense of normalcy. If your scene is further inland, soft grass gives the reader a cushioned floor they can easily recall feeling beneath their feet, and sunlight makes the world a transparent, safe place.
Paint it (insert color here)
Color psychology and using shadows versus light can have a tremendous impact on the mood and tone of a setting. Think of it this way; when was the last time a black and purple color combination made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? Or, has anyone ever tried painting a haunted castle in soft shades of green and blue in an effort to make it creepier? Those hues wouldn’t fly in the real world, and there’s no reason to think you could get away with such a nonintuitive strategy in your fictional tale.
So when you’re trying to use colors to your advantage, go with your gut. A dank attic, for one, should feature colors that describe its state of disrepair not just for accuracy, but also to put your readers in the right mood. Greying wood, stains or signs of charring, faded curtains that may have once been white, but are now so dingy that they’re a sickly yellow. Already, you have at least a vague outline of not only what the place looks like, but what it feels like, and you know that this probably won’t be the scene of a sweeping romance or a touching family reunion―not in the traditional sense, anyway.
Likewise, the right amount of shadow can make or break the mood of a particular setting in your novel. I, like so many other writers, especially love to capitalize on this element as well as striking colors to mentally paint a sunrise or sunset that brings an audience to tears. Maybe it’s overdone, but hey―you can all see it, right? And either scenario conveys its own symbolic meaning: beginnings versus endings, action or the decline thereof. In some cases, sunsets could even be sinister as they bring on the darkness and dangers of nighttime, and sunrises could lose their inspirational luster when they reveal the carnage of the night before. This is where interchanging soft colors―pink, yellow, blue―and commanding ones―red, orange, even the first tinges of blackness in the sky―comes in handy. And to usher either tone into the setting, you need dynamic shadows to highlight, hide, or even visually alter what’s happening through the narrator’s eyes. Looking out over the terrain while the sun peaks above the horizon, the world comes into view. What that world looks like, and what it a new day means for your characters, is entirely up to you.
A talkie or a silent film?
Never underestimate the power of silence, especially if that silence is engineered to enhance a scene of your novel. Silences have tons of possible meanings, and each of them can contribute to a certain mood or tone. Want to ramp up the tension in an argument? Cut the sound right in the middle of it. Your characters could be screaming at each other, then all of a sudden, they both stop and it’s obvious to everyone that some momentous decision is about to be made in the heat of the moment. There are sad silences, reflective ones, and we’ve all experienced a silence that’s just really damn awkward.
That being said, sounds are also your friend―even if they’re random, otherwise nonessential noises that you use to draw a sharper contrast to that aforementioned silence. In that argument’s tense interim, while your characters are giving their vocal cords a break, your audience could read about the ringing in the narrator’s ears, the hollow hammering of his or her heart counting the seconds until someone breaks the silence with that cutting statement that will seal their fates. Play up on awkward silence by accentuating someone’s flaming cheeks growing warmer with the slow grinding gears of the elevator, a third party’s forced cough in the background of an otherwise quiet room. Grief can be conveyed through the chilling wails and plaintive sobs of a widower, peace by the rustling of the grass and a babbling stream off in the distance.
Even dialogue is key to establishing the mood or tone, and it can do this in both overt and subtle ways. Dialogue tags are a nuisance for most readers, but in this case, they can be handy, too. Shouted, grumbled, whimpered, cried, chuckled: all of these carry with them certain connotations that help guide your audience’s interpretation of a scene’s vibe without you having to say that someone was angry, sad or happy, and therefore so is this section of the story.
No, this is not in reference to using prejudice or crude interactions in order to establish a mood or tone (although I suppose that might work, too, but I digress). Believe it or not, literal objects can add depth to a setting not just by beefing up your descriptions, but also by establishing key points of reference and significance in a given section of the story.
Just like I covered earlier with sounds, these objects don’t necessarily have to hold any importance on their own. Sure, it helps catch eyes if the pocket watch is solid gold and doubles as a complicated key for that hidden door behind the bookshelf. But, if it’s a tarnished heirloom that doesn’t even keep time properly anymore, that’s ok, too. The first example is perfect for adding a touch of mystery, for building suspense, and giving the readers a sense of adventure. But maybe you want to reinforce the nostalgia of someone’s grandson sorting through his relative’s long-forgotten possessions, while equally dusty memories rise to the surface with each object he pulls out of the box. In this case, you want the faulty pocket watch, the one that isn’t shiny or particularly useful, but remains valuable in its own way nonetheless. You might be writing out those memories or sequences of events, which in turn could explicitly and directly communicate your character’s feelings about them, but the tangible objects involved are what make the experience real and drive home points that even words often fail to express.
Using concrete terms to convey the abstract tones and moods of your fictional stories is tough―which is why it works to take the scenic, roundabout route from time to time. It’s an intuitive decision more often than not, but if you’re really stumped on a debate between showing versus telling, it might be time to pull in a tie-breaker. Chances are, from one writer to another, we can figure out how to say what you mean without actually having to say it.